The NBA schedule is a long, grueling one. Lots of things can happen. But the Houston Rockets are teetering on the edge of a lost season if they are not careful and the next ten games are likely to reveal just how good or bad they will be in the New Year.
These next games will not only be an important stretch of the schedule, but will round out their 2018, a year that saw some incredible highs and some bitter disappointments. This season has been something else, more stunning in how bad it has been than anything.
Between now and New Year's Day, the Rockets will face some of the teams ahead of them in the Western Conference standings, a conference remarkably tightly packed with only six games separating 14 of the 15 teams. With all but two of those games at home and only one back-to-back, where the team is on January 1 will tell us a lot about who they are and where they are going in 2019.
December 13 vs. LA Lakers
Lebron James makes his first visit to Houston as a Laker and, currently, it's working out pretty well. Expectations were rather low given the limited additions LA was able to make outside King James. The aim is for the longer term. Yet, they are 17-10 and sitting fifth in the densely packed West. Just based on rosters and where the Rockets expected to be, the Lakers should be overmatched. But, strange things happen sometimes. The Lakers turn the ball over a lot mainly because they have one of the fastest paces in the NBA, but they are generally pretty solid overall. Could be a interesting matchup.
December 15 at Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizz with their old school plodding style are remarkably sixth in the conference. A healthy Mike Conley, perhaps one of the most underrated point guards in the NBA, and a very solid defense help make up for one of the worst offenses in basketball. They force a lot of turnovers and the Rockets can be turnover machines at times. The key will be, as with most Rockets efforts, how well they shoot and if they can outpace the Grizzlies.
December 17 vs. Utah Jazz
Like the Rockets, the Jazz has been one of the more disappointing teams in the NBA. You wouldn't have known it from how they blew out the Rockets in Salt Lake City recently, but they are ahead of Houston in the standings. The Jazz have slowly been climbing the rankings in defensive efficiency, but they are nowhere near where they were last season. And they are a terrible outside shooting team. If nothing else, this needs to be a revenge win for the Rockets.
December 19 vs. Washington Wizards
The Rockets lost an overtime shootout heartbreaker in DC late last month while in the midst of one of their worst stretches of the season. While the Rockets have gotten better on offense but still struggle defensively, the Wizards don't do much well at all. They are an awful three-point shooting team despite ranking among the most prolific distance shooting squads in the NBA. They don't rebound well, but they force turnovers and block shots. At home, the Rockets should win this easily...should.
December 20 at Miami Heat
The only back-to-back and one of only two road games, this match against the Heat should be another win for the Rockets. Miami is a scattershot team with a very solid defense thanks to big man Hassan Whiteside blocking shots in the middle (Whiteside vs. Capela should be the matchup of the night). They have one of the more odd stat lines on offense with one of the worst overall ratings and below average scoring mixed with one of the fastest paces and best three point percentages in the NBA. It's hard to know what you will get from them on any given night.
December 22 vs. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs have been underwhelming, but most of that has been on defense. Dermar Derozen has been pretty much everything for them, leading them in scoring and assists. They have struggled to defend and, like the Rockets, haven't gotten great contributions from their bench. Each team has one a game in San Antonio, but this will be the first home game for the Rockets. This could be a good bellwether to see where the team is before Christmas and...
December 25 vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
What would seemingly be a terrific Christmas matchup has lost some luster with the Rockets struggles, but if they can right the ship at least a little by then, this is just the type of game that could give the Rockets loads of confidence going forward. The Thunder are the best defensive squad in the NBA and fairly mediocre on offense. Still, with the star power they have on their roster, it has been enough to keep them at or near the top of the West much of the season. This could either be a barnburner or a blowout.
December 27 vs. Boston Celtics
The Celtics seem to have course corrected after a rocky couple of weeks. Like the Thunder, they are aces on defense, but they have a sturdier offense than OKC and a lot more options at that end of the floor. This should be the point in this stretch where the Rockets have either surrendered to continued struggling or they are starting to build on some quality wins. If the latter is the case, this could be a very intriguing matchup.
December 29 vs. New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans whopped up on the Rockets in the first game of the season at Toyota Center. It was a bad omen. Since then, New Orleans has only won three more road games. They are basically as bad away from home as they are good in their own building, due primarily to the fact that they are potent, if streaky, offense. Unfortunately for them, they are not good at the other end. In that way, they mirror the Rockets. Even if the Rockets continue to struggle, this should be a home win for them as they wind down 2018.
December 31 vs. Memphis Grizzlies
The annual New Year's Eve game is unlikely to be a fast paced affair with the Grizz in town. It's typically a rather tepid game anyway with both fans and players often distracted by the holiday. At this point, it is difficult to know where either team will be, but a win could certainly cap off the year in better fashion than the way they began the 2018-19 season.